Professional golfers and yes, recreation golfer in the US are spoiled. Our golf courses are lush, the fairways are smooth, our courses are watered to be soft and our greens are shaved closer than a Marine crew cut. Our courses are perfectly manicured…we know how far we must fly the ball and we know it will pretty much stop on the green. Believe it or not, we have ‘Americanized’ golf.
But then comes an event one week out of each year in July that has some magic. Thanks to the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the Open Championship showcases how golf was intended to be played. We get to see links golf.
Our courses in the US are lush and green. We all love watching the Masters, as August National is the best manicured course in our country. This week, here comes Royal Birkdale, with its varying shades of brown and humps and bumps. Quite the contrast.
Links is derived from a Scottish word meaning ‘ridge.’ Links courses were built on coastal areas, consisting of sand dunes, that were considered unsuitable for farming. Fescue grasses were the only thing that would grow and the soil drained well. With the lack of moisture, the grass tends to have long roots. What you get is a very firm surface with long wispy fescue grasses off the mown areas and the naturally undulating areas between the dunes. Sorry Pebble Beach, Harbour Town and others here in the US...you are not links courses.
Links golf forces you to put up with the vagaries of the weather and humpy-bumpy hard turf. Some have equated the surrounding to like being on the moon. You must have a variety of shots in your arsenal. In the US, you can be somewhat robotic in your approach to playing a course through the air. You know how far that pitching wedge goes to the tenth of a yard. Guess what? Links golf cuts through all that bull-butter. You better have every shot in the bag when you step foot on a links course.
Links golf is you versus the course. You have no shelter from what Mother Nature may bring. One moment it may be sunny and five minutes later, you have gale force wind and it is raining sideways. You see the weather approaching sometimes like a drunken ex-girlfriend who spots you at a party. You know what’s coming and you have nowhere to hide.
You will hit what you think are good shots, only to see them bound off the green or sideways into a pot bunker, the wispy fescue or the gorse. Oh yes, the bunkers on links courses are true penalties. No one this white sand, low lip, perfectly raked stuff we have in the US. You go in a bunker on a links courses, it is wedging out sideways back to the fairway. And yes, sometimes you must hit backwards! We in the US complain about ‘bad bounces’ and ‘not getting rewarded’ for good shots. I can just see Old Tom Morris saying, Aye, but isn’t that how life goes?’
You can’t be a robot playing a links. You can play the same links course twice in one day and play your shots totally different in the second round versus the first. You must think your away around the course. You can’t just bomb it, go find it and bomb it again like many in the modern era tend to do. That aspect alone makes links golf worth appreciating. You must know and understand the land and the shots only begin to take shape once they hit the turf. Read the greens, but you also better read the land.
Links golf is the purest form of golf and for all these reasons are why I truly would rather play a links course any day of the week. There is no truer test of your golfing ‘toolbox’ than teeing it up for a round at a seaside links course. Having different options, the challenge of creating and executing different shots during a round is what golf is about.
My first time playing Royal Lytham & St. Annes, I had 120 yards into the 18th green. I decided to chip and run and 7 iron. It got no more than 6 feet off the ground, carried about 50 yards in the air and ran the rest to about 12 feet from the flag. On the balcony of the clubhouse right behind the green a few members were watching me. As I approached the green they lifted their drinks and shouted, ‘You must be a local.’ My response, ‘I wish I were.’
One of the first Open Championship Rota courses I was fortunate to play was Royal Birkdale. Upon entering the property, the first things that hits you is the clubhouse. Once described as a ‘spaceship’, it is not the proto-typical foreboding clubhouses you think of when visiting these great links courses in the United Kingdom. Once inside, you find a building that is oozing in history with pictures and hardware commemorating the 26 Royal & Ancient major championships (professional and amateur) that the club has hosted.
The golf course itself is one of my favorite layouts. It looks like Frederick Hawtree and J.H. Taylor just walked along and plotted the fairways and placed the greens between all the natural valleys and dunes of the property. It is fair but tough. Good and straight shots are rewarded, while wayward shots are penalized by the bunkers, fescue and dunes. There is nothing quirky about this course. It is easily one of the Top 100 golf courses in the world. I have played it three times and enjoyed it more each time around the layout.
If the course gets a wee breeze this week, look for the scores to a bit on the high side this week. Only once has the winner of the Open (Lee Trevino in 1971) managed to reach double digits under par. Royal Birkdale is a wonderful mix of challenging dogleg par 4’s and great par 3’s. There are two par 5’s, but you don’t get them until the 15th and 17th holes. This par-70 will challenge the field and I consider it one of the more difficult Open Rota layouts.
There will be a few key holes this week. Of course, this will depend which way the wind blows on the Merseyside. As I write, the wind is forecast for about 15 mph, with gusts to 25 mph on the first two days of the championship. Given that, here are the key holes from my experience in playing Royal Birkdale.
1st Hole—Par 4, 450 yards
This is a great starting hole and no easing into this layout. A dogleg left, most players will probably take a long iron or hybrid off the tee thread their ball between a bunker and dune on the corner and fescue waiting at the far corner of the dogleg. From there, mid-to-long iron approach awaits to a green which slopes from away from you, front to back. A couple of bunkers guard the front of the green which is surrounded by small dunes. Four is a good score any day here, no matter which way the wind blows.
4th Hole—Par 3, 199 yards
One of things you get at Birkdale are many holes with elevated tees and superb par 3’s. This first of which is this hole. From the very back of the tee, you may have trouble seeing the entire green. Sometimes, it is best not to see what awaits you. Played usually with a prevailing crosswind, you hit a mid-iron downhill to a narrow kidney shaped green. Three bunkers guard the left and there is not much of an opening to run the ball up. A nasty bunker guards the right side and awaits and ball which rides the wind too much off the tee. Any pin on the left side will make 3 a number which gains strokes on the field. Walking off the green to the next tee, you will see the original professional shop at the club.
6th Hole—Par 4, 499 yards
This hole is a beast. The prevailing wind is into you and off the right. A bunker guards the corner of the hole at about 270 yards off the tee. Anything in the right side of this fairway short of that bunker, leaves you a blind shot to the green, as sand dunes line the entire right side up to just short of the green. Designed for a par 5, the green is long and narrow, slightly elevated from the fairway. More than likely, this will be the hardest hole on the course this week.
10th Hole—Par 4, 402 yards
This is a real sleeper of a hole and with the prevailing wind, could be a difficult hole this week. Many will hit a long iron off the tee. You must hit the fairway of this reverse camber hole. Two bunkers guard the corner of the dogleg left, while the fairway slopes right to left toward three more bunkers. The approach shot plays slightly uphill to a green that is perfectly placed in a small amphitheater of sand dunes.
12th Hole—Par 3, 188 yards
Another of Birkdale’s wonderful par 3’s. A solid strike with a mid-iron is a must on this hole. Two deep bunkers guard the entrance to the long green placed between the dunes. Some members say this is the signature hole of the layout.
17th Hole—Par 5, 567 yards
With a prevailing wind, this will be the par 5 which most of the field reaches in two. The tee shot will fly between two large dunes on each side of the dogleg. Two bunkers are on the right side of the landing area, at about 320 yards off the tee. Despite being easily reachable for the players, the 2nd shot must be precise. The green is long and narrow, guarded by three bunkers and large dunes on each side. You will see 3’s and many 4’s here…but I could easily a player in the dunes and a score of 6 ruining a player’s chance at glory this week.
18th Hole—Par 4, 465 yards
Maybe the best finishing hole in the Open Rota. From the championship tee, it is a blind tee shot, as you can’t see the landing area. The tee shot must avoid all the fescue down the right side and the bunkers on each side of the dogleg right. That’s half the battle. Now, you face a mid-iron shot to a green with a narrow entrance and many little humps and hollows around the green. Tom Watson hit a great 2 iron approach here in 1983 to seal his win. That long of a club will not be required this time, but a player needing a 4 to win will need to be precise with his approach.
Brandel Chamblee, as he is prone to do, caused a commotion on Twitter this weekend, decrying the enforcement of the anchoring bar in putting. During the US Senior Open, he tweeted:
'With regard to the anchoring ban on the PGA Tour Champions, it's appalling, I have never seen such gross disregard for the spirit of the game.'
He was obviously referring to not only Bernhard Langer, but also other PGA Tour Champions players that have slightly modified their old anchoring stroke to comply with the new rule in 2016.
If you have seen Bernhard Langer, instead of placing the end of his long putter against his sternum for his stroke, he pulls it slightly away after his practice stroke, before he hits his putt. His hand and the end of the putter are still touching his shirt, but you can see (barely) that the end of the putter is not touching or ‘anchored’ against his body. I watched Ian Woosnam do the same thing while I walked with his group during the first two rounds of the Senior PGA Championship in May.
Chamblee’s comments opened up others to question the enforcement of the anchoring rule. According to sources (other caddies and players) inside the tour, many are not happy with the lack of enforcement of the rule. Many feel Langer and the others using the broomstick putter with the slight adjustment to the position of their left hand are still not abiding by the spirit of the rule.
Let’s face it, when the USGA and R&A changed the rule, they were taking the path of least resistance to getting rid of the long, broomstick putters. Obviously, it would be easier to change the rule, rather than outlaw the club and have battles with equipment companies over the ban.
So maybe the uproar over this goes away until the next Senior major. Nobody on the PGA Tour uses the broomstick (at this time), so you are not getting week-in and week-out focus on it. It was only brought up because the PGA Tour Champions just had one of their majors. If this was the Mitsubishi Electric Classic, nobody would be talking.
My feeling is that the PGA Tour Champions will continue to apply the rule just as they have been since it’s inception. As long as they see daylight between the end of the broomstick and the players chest, they will allow it.
What really needs to happen is the USGA needs to revisit the wording and application of the rule. If it wants the long putter gone from the game…do it! It certainly hasn’t been proven to be the superior method of putting, otherwise, you would see everyone in the game putting with the broomstick design. I have long been an advocate of banning the long putter, and would have no problem if the USGA did so. However, they do need to provide more detailed language and clarity in 14-1b. All the change has done is move the bar, I mean the end of the long putter, a few inches.
Last week the USGA and the R&A published a report which came to the conclusion that in the period 2003 to the present, driving distances on the Professional Golf Tours did not significantly increase, only about 1% according to their data. To quote the great Gary Player, ‘[The report] It’s really laughable.’
Below is a chart which the report used to show the driving distances on the professional golf tours. Driving distance is measured at every professional event using either Par 4’s and/or Par 5’s and the holes must be in opposite directions of each other.
The organizations chose to really start the time period of focus in 2003, because that’s when they came out with their ‘Statement of Principles’ regarding technology advances in golf. A portion of the Principles is as follows:
‘The governing bodies believe that golf balls, when hit by highly skilled golfers, should not of themselves fly significantly further than they do today. In the current circumstances, the R&A and the USGA are not advocating that the Rules relating to golf ball specifications be changed other than to modernize test methods.
The R&A and the USGA believe, however, that any further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level are undesirable. Whether these increases in distance emanate from advancing equipment technology, greater athleticism of players, improved player coaching, golf course conditioning or a combination of these or other factors, they will have the impact of seriously reducing the challenge of the game. The consequential lengthening or toughening of courses would be costly or impossible and would have a negative effect on increasingly important environmental and ecological issues. Pace of play would be slowed and playing costs would increase.’
The conclusion of this report is truly off-base. First, the organizations essentially cherry-picked the time frame they chose to analyze based upon their date of their Statement of Principles. They have chosen to ignore the data leading up to that point in time, as you can see by the graph. Furthermore, they also do not acknowledge that the players are not always hitting drivers on the distance-measuring holes on the tours. We have seen more and more players using 3 woods and driving irons off even the longest of Par 4’s in todays’ game. However, this is not mentioned in their conclusions.
What the USGA also needs to explain is that if driving distances are not significantly increasing and the ball does not go further, why have you lengthened a Par 3 at Oakmont this week to 288 yards, versus 250 yards in 2007 when the last US Open was played there. Why are there Par 4’s at every Open over 500 yards now? Why is almost every US Open venue building new tees to lengthen their courses in preparation for hosting US Opens and major championships. Why did Augusta National choose to add length to what is considered by many to be the best golf course in the world? Why do you choose to have hole locations much closer to the edges of greens now than you did 10 years ago? On a personal note…why do I (older and not in as good of shape) hit the ball 15-20 yards farther off the tee than I did 10-15 years ago?
I could go on…but it just seems this report by the governing bodies of golf just raises so many more questions than actual conclusions.